I stopped short of bowing low to her or prostrating myself before the dignified, diminutive female figure standing before me.
Instead I acknowledged Beverley Bogle with a respectful nod of my head toward my hands - which were clasped in the manner, perhaps, of a Shaolin disciple greeting a venerable monk dutifully.
The Jamaica-descended, long-time Lewisham London resident before whom I was bowing did not take me too seriously. She smiled good-naturedly, and I think she may have shyly said something like “Stop that!”
Yet I did not feel that my response to meeting an actual blood-related descendant of legendary Jamaican freedom fighter and national hero Paul Bogle was an over-reaction.
I had been greeted with a similar bowing gesture by an African elder at a Pan Africanist summit in Barbados in 2002. I had been taken aback by the immediacy of that momentary manifestation of Africa’s ancient traditions of respect for both the young and the old.
And it was clear that Beverley had some understanding and appreciation of my veneration for the man whose name she bears: the man she calls her great, great granduncle (the brother of her great, great grandfather).
I had first learned of Paul Bogle – among the first of Jamaica’s seven national heroes to be elevated to that status - while at the Garrison Secondary School in Barbados.
The October 1865 Morant Bay rebellion, of which he was the most prominent leader, is a staple feature of Jamaican and wider Caribbean history.
Marking a watershed moment in Black Caribbean people’s post-slavery struggle, Bogle and his community’s uprising is perpetually being recounted in history lessons across the region.
Bogle is also less formally and more widely commemorated in Jamaican band Third World’s hit song “1865”, more popularly known by the title “96 Degrees In the Shade”.
A more popular commemoration still, perhaps, is the dance that bears Paul Bogle’s name: the “Bogle”. It was devised (or should that be divined?) by Jamaican dancehall icon Gerald “Bogle” Levy.
Unfortunately, Levy was tragically shot and killed in a January 2005 episode of the scandalous violence that has put Jamaica among the world’s murder capitols.
Levy and friends associated with the Stone Love sound system were reportedly attacked by rivals supporting another Jamaican dance “don”, John 'John Hype' Prendergast.
Hours later, Prendergast’s home was firebombed, supposedly in retaliation for the attack that left Levy dead.
Yet when I met Beverley Bogle and other members of the Jamaica Nurses in the UK and their Associates (JANUKA) Quadrille dance group, on a visit to Norwich in October last year, I was left with the clear impression that such violence is not what Jamaican music and dance are about.
It is not the legacy of Paul Bogle. It is not, as some British social commentators may think, the natural heritage and mindset of Jamaicans.
As Beverley was keen to point out, her great, great uncle was a deeply pious and peaceful man.
She says “He was a good man. He promoted knowledge and awareness about equality and justice. And he used the church - because he was a Baptist deacon – to spread the positive message that we’re no longer slaves and we need economic viability for ourselves.”
(Not unlike the use of the church, methinks, by senior Anglican cleric, former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral Giles Fraser - a man born just three weeks after myself, I discovered today - who resigned his post in support for the Occupy London protestors last October.)
She said that Bogle worked with William Gordon, the Baptist minister whose church he attended, and who was made a Jamaican national hero with him, “to try and get [the British] Parliament to honour the agreement that the freed slaves would be given land and a certain amount of money to start themselves out...rather than still having to work for the plantocracy.”
Perhaps reflecting her own conservative upbringing or instincts, the JANUKA leader said that she did not always have a positive regard for her iconic ancestor.
Bogle said she was actually once inclined to denounce her great, great granduncle as a “rebel”, in line with the then dominant, conservative thinking in Jamaica.
Incidentally, the legacy of 1930s Barbadian labour leader and national hero Clement Payne, a catalyst for the landmark 1937 riots on that island, has evolved in a similarly contested manner.
And while in the minds of many Barbadians Payne’s official elevation to the status of national hero (along with 9 other Barbadians who have made outstanding contributions to the island’s development) has settled the question of his virtue or villainy, for others the issue remains contested.
This is not surprising, I suppose – and it may even be healthy.
I certainly am all for a “critical appreciation” of the exploits of Bogle, Payne and all other Caribbean heroes – whether they are officially acknowledged or conveniently omitted by those who think the scripting of the region’s history is their sole or privileged prerogative.
And incidentally again, it would be remiss of me, while exploring Paul Bogle’s legacy today - and touching on the issue of “the sense of entitlement that can overtake the privileged” - not to note that the primary (even primitive) principle of fairness that motivated him and William Gordon to act on behalf of Jamaica’s masses is the same principle now dominating news coverage – and contests – around bankers’ bonuses and other aspects of the current global economic crisis.
Actually, reflecting on the remarks of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) Chief Executive Stephen Hester on BBC Radio Four this morning – about how he contemplated resigning as debate about his then pending bonus raged around him, but decided against that course because he felt it would be “indulgent” – I was struck by the “Protestant purity” of his reasoning.
I take up parallels between the 16th century Protestant Reformation and the current Occupy Movement catalysed reformation of capitalism in the next instalment of my “David Cameron’s Curious Christian Commerce” series of articles on this site – possibly to be published today (that was February 8th).
This is Paul Bogle and his descendant relative Beverley’s story and I need to restrict myself in the telling of it.
There are a number of issues that Ms. Bogle and JANUKA face, as they seek to propagate the positive, productive elements of Jamaican culture in Britain.
Not least of all, simplistic, regressive, negative notions about the African elements of that culture: Jamaicans’ and other black Caribbean peoples’ African heritage.
Like Paul Bogle’s and Clement Payne’s legacies, the virtue of African-derived cultural traits is still challenged and undermined (when not blatantly demonized) by historian David Starky and other reactionary white British academics who would possibly blame Caribbean and other non-European immigrants for every ill that afflicts the British self-image.
Even well-meaning, white members of British society struggle to address race-related issues with the equanimity (calmness) and balance that do the issues justice. A recent article by Daily Mail columnist Sonia Poulton, writing in defence of indefensible racist behaviour by Hackney member of Parliament Diane Abbott comes to mind here.
However good-willed, such errant interventions ultimately serve only to reinforce the kind of reverse-racist, fossilized thinking that Abbott’s simplistic, paranoia-prone “whites divide and rule” doctrine stems from and perpetuates.
Born of their own perverse, twisted sense of “entitlement” and “privilege” – the ghost limb logic of would be revolutionaries who substitute the rooted, experience-sprung pragmatism of Barak Obama,(and other paradigms of authenticity and pragmatism) with ideological verbiage - these fundamentally flawed favours to black people undermine and obstruct the more salutary, optimistic, creative possibilities and responses that black, white and every other group of people have been showing themselves capable of since time immemorial.
These good-intentioned but flawed favours undermine and obstruct the very creativity that Beverley Bogle and JANUKA celebrate and pay tribute to in their preservation of quadrille dancing.
As the uncommonly large, rather original itself JANUKA “business card” that Ms. Bogle left with me in October states, “Quadrille dancing is an affirmation of the free spiritedness, wisdom and versatility” our ancestors demonstrated in captivity.
The dance troupe emphasizes the “resilience, unison, hope, and determination” that their forebears
employed to survive enslavement.
“Their belief” says the card ”in the enduring strength of the human spirit to overcome pain and suffering through the creative process of dance is truly astounding.”
And this belief and strategy is desperately in need of advertising, I say, as black and other minority ethnic males in the UK continue to look in the wrong places for the “positive awareness and respect for our ancestors’ strong values and beliefs” that JANUKA can impart to them.
As I observed the all women troupe during a visit to one of their practice sessions at a hospital in Lewisham last year, I felt a distinct sadness that their efforts to “recapture the discipline of collective expressions, as well as unique interpretations of self, the camaraderie, creative merrymaking and frivolity, embodied in Quadrille dancing” were not being enhanced or reinforced by the membership of males.
Bogle and I spoke about this briefly, as I recall.
And while I do not recall her explanation of this state of affairs, I have a sense that it was essentially in line with my own take on the matter: basically, that too many black males’ concepts of manhood, self-respect and social standing revolve around notions of “hard power” and aggression.
Too many of our male and female youth buy into the crusty cynicism that is the flawed fare of political opportunists and the socially disaffected.
Too many black, white, mixed-race and other youth uncritically sign-up to the kind of “cold hard cash” rationalizations that are at the heart of a Machiavellian “realpolitik”.
This is not to blame young people exclusively, or even primarily for the gang-mentality generated cynicism or violence that afflicts British society and is in the news again today – as enhancements to the London Metropolitan Police’s Trident programme are announced.
Readers of my missives here will know that I generally try to distribute responsibility for the nihilistic strains in British society evenly.
I am just as mindful of executive boardroom gangs’ contributions to Britain’s social ills as I am to the role played by those gangs whose “corporate meetings” take place in abandoned buildings, in alleyways and on rubbish strewn, poorly lit streets.
My hope, is that wherever these “hard men” (and women) of whatever race or ethnicity congregate, the JANUKA Quadrille message of hope and wholeness may reach them and help them to re-engage more humanely with society.